Bruce Wellman Olathe Northwest High School

Engineering is a helping profession… I just couldn’t see that in college.

PostedThursday, February 22, 2018 at 10:42 AM

Engineering is a helping profession… I just couldn’t see that in college.

A love of chemistry and a desire to improve lives.

Sometimes in life you find yourself embracing the very thing you avoided when you were younger. That’s how it was with me and engineering. I grew up in a small Midwest town where my dad, an electrical engineer, worked at a manufacturing plant of a large chemical company. Though his degree was in electrical engineering, he quickly moved into the management side of the business and was responsible for managing the site’s power plant. I didn’t realize it at that time, but I grew up learning the engineering design process through our family dinner conversations about insuring consistent electrical power in the face of natural obstacles (lightning strikes, squirrels in transformer stations, and owls’ wing spans causing arcs across high voltage power lines) and trade-offs in preventive measures to overcome such obstacles. We also routinely used the engineering design process for completing family home improvement projects like pouring a concrete patio in our back yard.

I was the youngest of three boys with the oldest brother majoring in industrial engineering and the middle brother majoring in mechanical engineering. When it came time for me to choose a major to pursue in college I gravitated to my personal interest area of chemistry but of course, chose chemical engineering. I started my college studies majoring in chemical engineering at a large state university but I began to become disinterested in engineering as a career because none of my freshman courses had me DOING any engineering. In addition, I only heard fellow students discuss engineering as a lucrative career option rather than a way to help humanity.   

By the end of my first year, I drifted away from chemical engineering and switched my major to chemistry with the hope of discovering new chemical phenomena that might cure cancer or eradicate some form of human suffering. Halfway through my junior year (literally right in the middle of an incredibly abstract and boring lecture in physical chemistry class) I was struck with the idea of teaching as a way to combine my passion for chemistry with a desire to help people. I changed my major to general science and found a graduate program that allowed me to get a master’s degree in education and become certified to teach high school chemistry and physics in two years.  

I began my high school chemistry teaching career in rural Delaware and went on to teach English in French speaking Africa for 3 years, teach chemistry and AP Chemistry in urban Los Angeles County, California, and eventually ended up teaching chemistry and AP Chemistry in a suburban setting in Kansas so my children could be close to one set of grandparents.

After teaching high school science for five years, I became aware of a teaching position which was part of an Engineering Academy at a Oalthe academy logonearby high school. As I mentioned earlier, I never completed an engineering degree so I didn’t think I would be the type of candidate they were looking for, but I decided to go ahead and apply for the position anyway. During the interview process the principal explained that she was not looking for an engineer to fill that position but rather for a great chemistry teacher who was willing to learn how to teach engineering to high school students. That was eight years ago, and as the saying goes… the rest is history. In my case, a very rewarding history.

Professional development turns a chemistry teacher into an engineering educator.

Our public high school seeks to provide students with an integrated science and engineering program that includes a sequence of classes in the sciences (biology, chemistry, AP Physics 1) and engineering elective classes (Engineer Your World, Engineering CAD, and Engineering Design and Robotics). The program culminates in a senior year capstone project that provides students with an authentic engineering design, build, and compete/test experience. Once I was hired for this engineering-chemistry and capstone teaching position, I started looking for professional development opportunities to build the understanding and skills I would need to make engineering education for high school students meaningful and challenging.

BruceWellman_in class4_cropped.jpg

One of the first trainings I attended was a week-long summer camp for teachers by the ASM Materials Education Foundation. This free camp helped me to learn about materials science topics—specifically polymers, ceramics, metals, and composites—and how these engineering concepts could integrate into high school science classes. This was a great hands-on program that allowed me to learn key concepts quickly. I highly recommend you find a Materials Camp near you.

I also pursued training in engineering education through professional development opportunities at American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conferences. Their national conference is more geared toward a university audience but I identified many sessions that were of specific interest to me and my responsibilities of teaching/coaching our capstone classes. I discovered that I had a lot in common with professors who were teaching/coaching capstone classes at the university level. I was even able to contribute to the discussion about best practices due to my greater familiarity with research literature on how students learn and instructional design principles. These conferences also provided 3-6 hour workshops for participants to go into much greater depth around specific engineering design practices and innovative ways for teaching engineering design. I found those workshop sessions extremely beneficial for building my skills and confidence in teaching engineering with my students.  

Design Heuristcs CardsOne of my favorite ASEE workshops focused on learning how to use a recently developed tool, the Design Heuristic Cards. The cards were created to inspire students to produce more and better ideas during the ideation phase of an engineering design process. When I first began working with high school students on advanced engineering projects, I struggled with getting students to come up with innovative ideas before progressing through the design process. This workshop gave me a valuable tool that I could use to help my students expand the number, diversity, and quality of ideas they generated. It also helped me be a better designer. The workshop format allowed me to ask questions to the Design Heuristic Card creators as well as other participants on how this tool could be adapted for various teaching situations. Not only was I able to use the cards with my engineering students the next school year, I eventually collaborated with the workshop presenters to develop a similar class for high school teachers interested in doing more engineering design projects.

Another great organization to explore for resources and training opportunities is the International Technology & Engineering Educators Association (ITEEA). I have also used TeachEngineering as a source for specific lessons and projects to use with my chemistry students as well as my engineering design capstone students. LinkEngineering also provides information and a space to ask questions and reach out to other educators and engineers.

One of the greatest lessons I have learned is that I don’t need to be an expert in engineering to be an effective engineering teacher. I continue to build my knowledge of tools used by engineers, such as weighted criteria tables, to make sure that my students are well prepared for their future studies. But, it has been through my professional development experiences that I have learned how to challenge my students to think and reflect deeply about the problems they are trying to solve, to consider with whom they might want to collaborate (the “experts”), and to utilize the engineering design process to develop the best possible solution.

Yes, sometimes in life you find yourself embracing the very thing you avoided when you were younger. Time and experience have a way of making you rethink one's assumptions. That’s how it was with me and engineering. I came back to engineering, engineering education that is, later in my career journey and can truly say now, that engineering IS a helping profession with the potential to make the world a better place for everyone.  What has your path to engineering education been like? Let us know in the comments.


ASEE Conferences/Events

ASEE Webinars

ITEEA Professional Development

ASM Materials Camp

eGFI Professional Development Resources

Engineering is Elementary (EiE) Professional Development workshops

LinkEngineering's blogs on Mentoring and Engineers Week have suggestions for how to connect with programs for PK12 engineering education.

BRUCE WELLMAN is a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT, Chemistry) who teaches Engineering Chemistry and Robotics as part of the Engineering Academy at Olathe Northwest High School in Olathe, KS. He received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching in 2009 and served as a Teacher Ambassador Fellow at the U.S. Department of Education during the 2011-12 academic year. He has served on various committees for the National Academies. Wellman has organized and lead small and large scale professional development for STEM teachers and has been active in bridging the gap between STEM Education research and classroom practices. 

Photo credits:
Top photo:
Author holding 2009 Presidential Award for Excellence in Math & Science Teaching certificate between NSF Director Subra Suresh and OSTP Director John P. Holdren. Courtesy NSF for PAEMST.

Middle photo: Author with engineering students. Courtesy Bruce Wellman.


Add a Comment
Add a Comment